Monumental Question: How Are the Places of Memory in the Future of Cities?
What is the story that your city’s public space tells? Who are the people honored in monuments scattered throughout it? Issues like these have led to a series of insurgencies in recent years in several cities. The notions of memory and representation have expanded the reflection on which narrative we build in our spaces, a fact that has triggered an urban question for the future: after all, what do we want to remember (or forget) through the symbols that we (or destroy) in cities?
Transforming historical facts or characters into monuments tends to contribute to narratives that are said to be heroic, topics that are considered worthy of entering the collective imagination when seen daily during transit through the city. However, what do they actually represent? In São Paulo, for example, of the 199 monuments with human forms, 169 depicting male forms, of which 137 would be white people¹, demonstrating the discrepancy with figures of women and other races.
epresentativeness is a key word to understand why social movements have engaged in the face of the symbols that constitute a city and what they actually portray to the collective. If universal representation is utopian, it is necessary for the narratives of different collectives to be able to transform thought in order to revolutionize the way we see, interact and build the places of memory and monuments in public space: when the discourse becomes an object.
The German critic Andreas Huyssen already raised curiosity about countries with cultures guided by a deliberate anti-fascist anti-monumentalism resorting to monumental dimensions during the 1990s². After all, why adopt the monumental scale to try to redeem itself from something that used it as a tool? Fortunately, the answer to the “monumental seduction” posed by the author seems to be coming to an end, and among the vicissitudes of memory, the common language of a monument and what it usually seems to have its days numbered in the symbolic construction of cities.
With the collapse of this language, comes the challenge of how to spatialize the narrative without homogenizing discourses, since there is no way to neutralize culture. In an attempt at a discourse in search of the “neutral”, some may even question the fact that erasing the memory of the dominant also erases the memory of the oppressed. An issue that arises guided by a false asymmetry, because proportionally the amount of monuments given to characters who became “heroes” – precisely because of the rule of other peoples and cultures – in the face of other groups that are made invisible in space is much greater. Or simply the priority given only to the white man, as seen in the case of São Paulo and most western cities, demonstrate how in a dispute, the oppressors or people in power have a much greater narrative advantage, because they dominate public areas at the same time as they manifest the history of their “victories” and thus also conquer the collective imagination.
This immense amount of memorials and tributes to the past reinforce and glorify episodes of great violence from previous centuries. In search of a rebalance or a greater discussion around the hegemony posed by these works, several interventions have been made, to the point of destroying them. Episodes that raised the question of what place they should occupy and whether they should exist in the city or not.
Some examples have already emerged, bringing different ways of dealing with the trauma that these images can cause. There are currents that defend the construction of counter-monuments or even horizontal monuments, opposed to the imposition given by a sculpture, vertical and phallic, which uses its height to punctuate a dogma in the inserted context. An example of this case is the Homomonument, held in Amsterdam as a space of resistance and tribute to the LGBTQIA+ population.
Another possibility, besides destruction, is to take these monuments to a museum or parks where their stories can be kept and contextualized, so that they are no longer an implicit and one-sided truth. Or, even, update them in order to raise new symbolic questions that tension the reality that these images insist on marking, as the indigenous artist Denilson Baniwa did when intervening in the Monumento às Bandeiras, in São Paulo, with the work Brasil Terra Indígena.
According to Hélio Menezes, curator of the Vozes Contra o Racismo exhibition, which featured the work, “even in the attempt to literally and symbolically crush the monument and through the city’s processes of exclusion, which are highly racialized, scenarios and beings that are removed and excluded from the city are reprojected into images on the concrete that builds it”. In the case of the aforementioned work, “images of plants, spiritual beings, primordial indigenous animals – which, in the words of Baniwa himself, continue to live there, they are just not in the visible plane – slowly ascend over the faded monument, which becomes barely discernible by the contours of the sculptural object”. Thus, an image that represents an extremely violent memory is momentarily erased to become a backdrop for a new message that praises everything that the sculpture’s honorees have violated in the past.
It is true that a single intervention does not undo all the power of a sculpture that has perpetuated the collective imagination for decades, but through actions and debates around the monument, it is possible to update its meanings and bring new reflections to the collective memory, in order to transform the future. All this, whether or not they are removed.
Today, several cities strive to develop some historical reparations, that is, they recognize a past of error and seek, through intentionally public acts, to demonstrate a desire for change and retraction of the past. And, in this sense, the discussion around monumentalization and the dispute over the field of memory is part of the complaint process that has led to this attitude. After all, these places of memory go beyond the identity of a single person, and this allows that, among the possible conflicts they narrate, there is a favoring of interlocutions that cross several layers to find a common place that seeks horizons of a more democratic city.
¹ Data taken from the survey “Quais histórias as cidades nos contam? A presença negra nos espaços públicos de São Paulo” carried out by the Instituto Pólis in November 2020.
² HUYSSEN, Andreas. Sedução Monumental. In: HUYSSEN, Andreas. Seduzidos pela memória: arquitetura monumentos mídia. Rio de Janeiro: Aeroplano, 2000. p. 41-66.
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